To increase our understanding of how the nervous system operates, and to give us some additional insights into how to use herbs for mental and nervous system complaints, it is important to explore and incorporate traditional ideas. Both TCM and TAM use similar concepts to emphasize the belief that nervous function (sensation, thought and movement) depends upon a subtle supply of energy flowing throughout the body. In TCM this energy is the Qi (chi), while in TAM it is called Prana (first energy), the life force derived from breath which, in conjunction with “Oja,” a “vital water,” nourishes Vata and activates the nerves. In TCM, a similar concept to Oja is Jing (the essence of Kidney Yin), equated with male and female sexual energy (sperm and egg). Both systems caution that poor breathing habits or wastage of Oja or Jing lead to nervous system weakness. Conversely, conservation of sexual energy and skillful breathing practices can dramatically increase ones supply of Qi, with a corresponding increase in intelligence, neural sensitivity, balance, regenerative power, coordination and memory.
This energy described in the traditional systems is not simply a theoretical concept. It is a palpable entity, something that can be felt and experienced. This is common knowledge among natural medicine therapists, energy healers, martial artists, and people who meditate. Herbal medicines can also increase Qi or Oja, changing our innate feelings of energy and well being. Martial artists and people who meditate use ginseng root to increase their Qi.
According to Nai-shing’s reading of the ancient Chinese writings, Qi was originally defined as a nutrient steam that was absorbed from the digestion of foods (like steam off a cooking pot) and distributed to organs and nerves through invisible tubes called acupuncture channels. Far from being a purely “made-up” philosphy, it was based upon the fact that people who practice meditation and breathing arts can feel the flow of this energy.
Because most physiologists study only neural pathways and hormone receptor reactions, and most do not meditate, little attention has been paid to the difficult to measure or subtle energy flow systems in the human body. However, modern researchers have demonstrated that the perineural cells that form the sheaths around bundles of nerves are involved in a number of important nervous system phenomena, including reaction time, control of growth and regeneration of nerves, navigational control, and wound healing (Becker, 1987). These functions closely resemble the heightened physical skills that develop over time in skilled T’ai Chi practitioners and Yogis. To the advanced practitioner, this energy takes on a life of its own and resembles pulses of blissful energy that courses through the whole body in waves. Over time it sharpens and perhaps even heals the nervous system. Maybe we should broaden our investigations of these phenomena in our search for new neurological remedies.
No matter how much I talk about it, no one will be convinced Qi exists until they experience it themselves. It’s simple. Stretch your arms out really long in front of your body, lock your elbows, and pull your finger back toward your nose. Stretch until it hurts a bit for five or ten seconds. Then, relax you arms and shake your hands out for few seconds. Immediately calm your mind, and place your open palms facing each other with about two inches of air between. Close your eyes and move your hands very slowly (like you were squeezing the Charmin), not going closer together than one inch or further apart than two inches, until you feel a magnetic-like force field between the open palms. Once the 85% of you who are capable of feeling this force do so, rotate your hands out of alignment and back again, maintaining the same space, and you will feel the strength of the field change. The ability to feel this energy is greatly expanded by practicing Yoga or T’ai Chi, or by practicing breathing exercises mentioned.
As a T’ai Chi instructor for 20 years, I have taught the following types of people to feel Qi energy flow through their body:
• Medical Doctors
• Ph.D.-educated scientists
• School teachers
• Bus drivers
• Biochemistry Professors
• Senior citizens
Rules for Good Mental Health
In Ayurvedic thought, strong mental health is synonymous with
virtue. The ancient texts made frequent and eloquent reference to religious virtues. Honesty, courtesy, and respect for others are the basic ingredients for mental well being. Almost as important is the belief that the sense organs must be trained and used carefully. That is to say, it is imperative that we avoid over-stimulation of the senses, which can lead to damage. This dangerous stimulation includes but is not limited to loud noise, bright light and excessive vibration. TAM doctors recommend a peaceful atmosphere for most of life’s activities. One can only wonder what the ancient writers would think of today’s world.
Ancient cultures engaged in physical and spiritual practices for a variety of related reasons. For example, practices such as breath control, mental focusing exercises, memory practice, visualization and meditation can be used to train the sense organs. One goal of these training exercises is to reach a quiescent (tranquil or serene) spiritual place where the deepest muscle tissues relax, and blood flow equalizes. This stimulates the release of healing energy (and probably some neuropeptides as well), and has an extraordinarily beneficial effect on health. It is also the foundation for spiritual development.